The semi-dry riverbed shown in this snapshot gives a feel for the rigors of ground travel in Sudan, which is at its best challenging and at its worst downright life-threatening. Yes, we crossed this riverbed in a Land Rover while on our way from Narus to Kuron, easing down the mucky bank on the right, splashing through the water, and then hanging on for the near-vertical climb up the left bank. For a moment I worried that our vehicle was literally going to topple over backwards in an Olympic-style backflip! Our intrepid Sudanese driver, however, didn't even blink; I couldn't tell whether his furrowed brow and maniacal grin signaled intense concentration or a sudden death wish.
Most of Southern Sudan lacks roads of any kind. Paved roads remain only a distant future dream (except in Juba, the provisional capital, which now has exactly 2 paved streets). Most rivers have no bridges. Travelers are often stranded for hours (or days) on one bank of a river, waiting for the water level to drop so that they can slog across to the other bank. Even bone-dry riverbeds are deceptively dangerous: Bishop Paride Taban nearly drowned once while crossing a dry wadi when a flash flood suddenly engulfed his vehicle. He escaped only because he was able to squeeze out through an open window and somehow swim to safety amid the muddied water and uprooted trees. The vehicle was never found.
Bush planes are actually the safest form of travel in S. Sudan, but chartering them is prohibitively expensive. For now, Mercy Beyond Borders travels by vehicle. The lack of rest stops or roadside eateries (hard to have a roadside restaurant when there are no roads!) doesn't worry me, but the likelihood of mechanical breakdown, armed ambush, or flash floods is enough to keep anyone awake. I'm always a bit surprised--and more than a bit grateful-- to arrive safely at any Sudanese destination. And I have tremendous respect for all who live and work there, day in and day out.
Disarmament is a good thing, right? Yes, but in Sudan, where nearly every male has a gun, it can actually escalate violence.
Prior to the April elections, the military in Southern Sudan began entering villages to force the people to turn in their AK-47s. Surely this is a good thing. However, some people feared being defenseless: "If I give up my rifle, but the men in the neighboring village do not, I will not be able to protect myself or my family..."
When any family failed to surrender their weapons, the soldiers summarily grabbed the family's young children and beat them severely until the parents complied. Some fathers instead attacked the soldiers. People were killed. All of this added to the general unrest that pervaded Sudan at election time. Thankfully, the violence did not spread and the elections were completed without major disruption. But the people remain distrustful that peace can endure. They cling to their weapons for safety. It is the terrible legacy of four decades of civil war.
This photo shows Anna Mijji and two friends heading to "the mall" in Narus, on their way to purchase food supplies for the weekend health promotion workshops which they conduct in the rural villages. They are crossing the wadi (dry riverbed) to get to the Dinka Market stalls on the far side of Narus town. In the market they may find butchered goat shanks hanging from a large hook, fresh onions, pounded maize, not-so-fresh tomatoes or cabbage trucked in from Kenya, as well as staples such as soap, salt, and cooking oil imported from neighboring countries. Sr. Kathleen Connolly, the California Mercy Sister who started the health promotion project and trained Anna, will return to S. Sudan in July to formally transition the project to the Sudanese women to continue through 2011. CONGRATS to Anna for her local leadership of this effort to improve maternal/child health among the Toposa women.